Piers and Other Structures

Merlin James
Piers and Other Structures

Nine etchings

Central to how I work as an artist is to let paintings and drawings sit for a long time, and then bring them out again in the studio, alongside things in progress, often then working back into the earlier ones, and so on. The fact that these etchings have sort of slept for fifteen years is part of that long game.

Around 2004 I was invited to make an edition to benefit the Whitechapel Gallery, where I was in a show called The Edge of the Real. I chose to make an etching, having not made any for more than a decade. I think it was the Whitechapel that chose Thumbprint Editions, in Camberwell, to make it. But I knew Pete Kosowicz a bit already. He had been part of Hope Sufferance Press, doing editions with Prunella Clough and Victor Pasmore and lots of people.

I did the Whitechapel print, a soft-ground etching depicting a kind of pier pavilion building, with festoon lights or bunting. Pete suggested I did more, and made up a bunch of plates, and put soft grounds on them. I did a few days at Thumbprint over a period, drawing through paper to lift the grounds, and working direct on the plate also, breaking through the ground in various ways, with stiff bristle brushes and things.

The images were non-domestic structures – piers, a bridge, a water tank, a sort of gangway, a signal box – all recurrent imagery from my paintings. I did them unpremeditatedly, not deciding on the motif until the moment I started on the plate. Each went into the acid one time — a single bite— and the duration was just instinct. I did about a dozen prints, and they all worked. I don’t remember any rejects.

We proofed them, then the studio printed editions of 40. Quite a lot depended on exactly how I had wiped the ink off, sometimes differently in different areas. So there was almost a monoprint aspect. The printers needed to replicate my wipe of the plate, forty times.

I was relocating to Glasgow around then, so my visits to Thumbprint were spaced out over time. Plus Pete was looking for a publisher, but these very quiet little prints were maybe not appealing to people at the time. I finally ended up signing and numbering them all in 2007, and even then a couple of the editions weren’t fully printed. A couple exist only in ten examples, and the plates are probably lost now.

Time went by and the prints still sat in a plans chest at Pete’s. I gave a couple of the editions away to be sold in aid of kunsthalles where I had shows. One sold out but the other came back almost complete. A dealer in Italy bought a few examples at some point. Eventually I did a deal with Pete, who sent me the bulk of the prints.

I hadn’t looked at them in ten years probably, but they re-emerged recently because Andrew Mummery had begun a database of my work, and he’d got onto the works on paper in the studio. The prints still looked relevant, and Andrew proposed publishing a very limited run of fifteen boxed sets, comprising nine of the images.

We wanted to have some text also. Andrew is very interested in word-and-image, and so am I in some ways. Artists’ books and portfolios are something I’m familiar with from way back; my sister is involved with artists’ books at the National Art Library. (Our father had got into it, via his study of Blake. He collected modern poets and private press books and things.) I’ve been in and out of love with the whole limited edition thing actually; but anyway I’m conversant with it. I once visited Pierre Lecuire in Paris, for example, to see the editions he did with de Staël and Charchoune and people. And I like Alex Katz’s collaborations with poets. I was involved with one he did with Robert Creeley, a portfolio Peter Blum published in the late ‘90s., called Edges. Big sugar lift etchings of foliage and flowers by Alex, interleaved with a poem by Creeley. I wrote an introduction.

So Andrew and I asked Oliver Reynolds if he was interested in giving us a poem, or writing one. I’ve known Oliver a long time. He has read at openings of mine and things like that. He’s a terrific poet. We sent him the images and he came up with this text that really worked well. It draws on the imagery but it’s got a whole narrative aspect — the sense of lives being led. At first I wasn’t sure, but it’s dead right I realised, partly because my images always ask, implicitly, who it is that is seeing this landscape or object or figure, and what the ‘view’ or the ‘scene’ might mean to them. Who is ‘the viewer’? Who is ‘the artist’? Who or what is ‘the subject’?

Oliver is from Cardiff, as I am, and he has some local references in the poem — very specific locations. But at the same time there is an anonymity, because most people won’t know the places referred to. The most specific references in a way become the most contingent, or arbitrary. It’s a hard effect to explain in the poem, but it really fits with my work. I had been quite disassociated from Wales for years after I left to study in London in 1979. But I’d reconnected a bit from the mid ‘90s, partly through doing a show at the National Museum in Cardiff. A decade later I did the Wales pavilion in Venice, and in the early 2000s I spent some periods living and working at a studio in Cardiff Bay. I’d already been making images of piers, and suddenly I was back at Penarth pier in Cardiff, which I’d known from childhood, and it became a significant site for me. Some things happened around there when I was living in the Bay. Not that it’s even necessarily Penarth pier I’m depicting in these prints, but yes…

So, Oliver’s poem was working really well and we wanted it printed letterpress. The etchings were on on Somerset Soft White 300gsm, and we wanted to use the same paper for the poem, plus title page and colophon page. The sheets are a fair size, and landscape format (37.5 x 44.5 cm) so it needed a decent size press. First I thought of I. M. Imprimit, in London, the press of Ian Mortimer. I’d worked for him years ago, in the ‘80s, doing letterpress and relief prints, and I’d learned all about printing on Albion and Columbian and Victoria presses. I was one of the printers on Ian’s amazing portfolio of the Jean Pouché Ornamented Types. Just by chance I was back in touch with him recently, and I thought of asking if I could come down and do the letterpress for my project with him. He has a great collection type faces, and is a great classic typographic designer.

However, Andrew wanted to launch in January ’23, so time was running out (and Ian had suffered a broken arm). Andrew suggested Edwin Pickstone, who runs a great typography and relief print room at Glasgow School of Art, as well as having a workshop of his own. It turns out Edwin had met Ian at some point and mined some of that expertise, so maybe the I. M. Imprimit influence got in there after all. The actual setting was done by Edwin’s colleague Colin Faulks, in a kind of utilitarian Grot face that seemed right.

The solander boxes were made by Tom McEwan in West Kilbride. Again, although Tom can do amazing complex things, we went for dead plain buckram in a sort of dark engineering green.

Oliver’s poem is in three double-column sheets and they can go in any order and be interleaved randomly through the prints, which themselves can go in any order. One never knows how people ‘use’ portfolios of loose prints like this — whether they take one or more out and frame and hang them, or whether they leaf through like a book. I like the idea that someone might play with different sequences. The images together might suggest a walk or a journey. My pictures are quite often like things seen in passing.

It’s got me thinking about making more prints, and also readdressing other old prints of mine that also never got an airing when they were made. There’s a bunch of colour woodcuts I did in Glasgow around 1996, that have mostly not been seen. And even older things, such as etchings made at Sam Fisher’s studio in London one summer in the mid ‘80s. It was a book project that never worked out. So we’ll see.

I’d like to make prints again soon if I get a chance.

Merlin James
5th December, 2022.